Sinhala Only: Realities in politics and society


SWRD Bandaranaike

There is certainly an interesting debate going on over the introduction and impact of Sinhala Only, following the initial piece by Elmo de Silva, with many giving their views. Mr. P.A. Samaraweera (PAS) from Brisbane, Australia is among the contributors most supportive of SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only policy and how it, as he sees, has benefitted the country. The state of the country today on education, employment and scientific progress, as well as legislation and the legislature itself does tend to give a more negative picture of this policy. This aspect will no doubt be debated more by others in the coming weeks. Writer Uswatte-aratchi has given some interesting explanations, and set some things right about the positions taken by PAS in the continued correspondence.

It appears that PAS needs some correction in his attitude that SWRD Bandaranaike was the sole redeemer of the Sinhala people, through Sinhala Only, with his victory, defeating the UNP in 1956, where Sinhala Only was certainly a key aspect of the policies before the people. The politics of 1956 had certainly more than Sinhala Only. And the politicians of that time, and before, were not the type of self-centered persons suggested when saying that: "All MP's from Dondra in Jaffna (?) took residence in Colombo, after the elections. They sent their children to schools in Colombo and went to their 'country residence' in their electorate once a month. So all resources were directed and qualified teachers appointed to Colombo, while schools in rural areas did not even have sanitary facilities." (Island 02/01/18).

PAS is certainly wrong in this. The majority of MPs resided in their electorates and many travelled by train to Colombo for official activities, including the parliamentary sessions. There was the MPs hostel "Sravasti" that accommodated most of them. Surely he could not have forgotten Mr. W. Dahanayake traveling by train from Galle to Colombo and back, to give just one example. Many more travelled from their ’country residences", and also educated their children in schools in their own areas. This is true of MPs from the North, South, East, West and Centre. He must also remember that this was not the period of luxury or any cars given from public funds for the travel comfort of MPS, unlike today, after the progress of Sinhala Only. It would help if PAS makes a small inqury to find out how may MPs of post-Sinhala Only today, have their luxury homes in Colombo, and do send their children to upper grade Colombo schools, and not to the Sinhala streams in schools in their electorates or electoral districts.

As to schools in the rural areas at that time not having sanitary facilities, it certainly would have been correct. But the reality is that many schools in rural areas still do not have proper sanitary facilities, as often reported in the media. It must be clear that the language of education and administration is certainly not of significance in solving issues of school or urban sanitation.

PAS has certainly used a very broad brush to paint his story of SWRD feeling the pulse of the people, and Sinhala Only being the huge push the MEP led by him got in the elections in 1956. As he states it: "Then, in 1956, we had a Prime Minister who didn’t feel the pulse of the common people. He had angered the Buddhist monks and the swabasha teachers. So the ordinary people trusted SWRD more than him. If he had not brought up the Sinhala issue someone else would have. Therefore, during the '56 elections, people took all the money lavishly given by rich UNP politicians, wore the green bush shirts given by them, took the lunch packets and went to the polling booth and voted for the MEP. Because the vernacular educated ordinary folk were so frustrated they did not want to be second class citizens in their own country." (Island 02/01/18).

There is certainly much more to this victory than Swabasha or Sinhala Only. It is good to remember that this was less than three years after the Hartal of August 1953, where eight people were killed. The anti-UNP feeling was very strong, and the left-wing trade unions were lined up against the UNP as well as the rural people. The UNP Prme Minister of that day, Sir John Kotelawala, was certainly unpopular and was strongly opposed by large sections of the Sangha too. It is important to remember that SWRD’s victory in 1956 was also due to a no-contest pact with the LSSP and CP, which made the left-wing voters, who may not have supported Sinhala Only, still voting for the MEP, that included SWRD and Philip Gunewardena, and many other former leftists too. Which meant that the LSSP and CP candidates too obtained many of the ant-UNP, pro-SLFP votes in that poll. The anti-UNP vote of that time had much more to do with the economic and social conditions of the people, and the call for socialist policies advocated by the left, and not only the Swabasha or Sinhala Only policies of SWRD.

As for the impact of Sinhala Only as a deciding factor in the 1956 poll, it is also good to recall that the UNP too changed its policy from Swabasha to Sinhala Only in the Kelaniya Conference, which preceded that election; but its support for Sinhala Only got it only eight seats in parliament. The anti-UNP voters had much more than Swabasha in their minds. It is also important not to forget that the Sinhala Only Bill was passed not only by the SLFP-led MEP, but also had the backing of the UNP in parliament. It was opposed by the LSSP, CP and the Tamil political parties.

As a polling agent for a left party in the 1956 election, I do recall the green shirted UNP supporters who were brought by bus to a polling station, call over at the left party poll office nearby after voting, and tell us that they voted against the UNP to support the working people and the ’kamkaru panthiya".

SWRD certainly had much more in is mind than the victory of Sinhala Only when racist politics began to take the upper hand as time went by. It was a section of the Sangha that went in a cart chanting Pirith to protest the Bandaranaike -Chelvanayakam (B-C) Pact, that was stopped by pro-MEP protesters in he Gampaha area, led by the late SD Bandaranayake. It is also good to remember that when tearing up the B-C Pact at Rosmead Place, following the demand of the Sangha, the Prime Minister did say that the consequences of this would be seen twenty years later. The consequences are still being seen.

As stated by writer Uswatte-aratchi in his well studied and piece today (02/01/18) on this subject (Central schools were opened after ’56) , indicate it is the calamitous decision by the SWRD-led Swabasha forces to remove English from being a compulsory subject in schools, in addition to Sinhala/Tamil, and the later move to make most University education too in Sinhala/Tamil, be the cause for the huge regression our society faces in most areas of education, administration, legislation and technological progress. The introduction of Sinhala/Tamil as the medium of education, brought before 1945 by Mr. J R Jayewardene and Mr. V. Nalliah of the Legislative Council, was certainly a most welcome move, but its advantages were lost with the removal of English from the compulsory subjects. The retention of English mainly places India very much ahead in its education and progress in science and technology today.

Education in Sinhala and Tamil is certainly good. JRJ and Nalliah saw this long before SWRD and Swabasha, and Sinhala Only. Making SWRD the savior of Swabasha and champion of Sinhala Only is certainly not of much relevance to Sri Lanka today. It is necessary to learn how much Sinhala knowledge alone can contribute to progress in today’s world, fast moving to the Digital Age, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. It is also good to know how much Sinhala education has helped our young minds to learn about the philosophies and thinking that came from Greece, the Arab world, and the Renaissance in the West, and how we could bring this knowledge to our youth and people.

While we remain opposed to the imperialist and colonial policies of the British, one must also not refuse to recognize the benefits they gave to our educational system, in the near 150 years of their rule here, and an even lesser period since they were directly involved in supporting and promoting education; no doubt with first preference given to the colonial administrative needs. Acknowledging this reality does not make one a stooge of colonialism or whatever other insults that may be hurled by the Sinhala Only bandwagon of today.

Lucien Rajakarunanayake


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